Defend the Vital Center

February 10, 2017

Philip Gorski

Writing shortly after the close of World War II, Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. spoke of the urgent need to defend the “vital center” of the American polity against the “centrifugal forces” that were tearing it apart. By “vital center,” he meant a broad alliance between “the non-Fascist Right” and “the non-Communist Left” based on a shared belief in American democracy.  Drawn together by the challenges of wartime mobilization, Schlesinger’s America held firm.  Will ours?

Not since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor has the future of American democracy been so imperiled. Today, the threat comes from within: from an executive branch that willfully sows chaos and strives to create, in the words of presidential adviser, Steve Bannon, a “new political order.”  To that end, judges are attacked and excoriated for their decisions or even their ethnicity; crucial allies are stiff armed (Australia), rival powers are insulted (China), and international institutions are threatened (the EU); the bully pulpit itself is abused to sow misinformation (crowd size), hawk Trump products (Ivanka’s jewelry) or push family interests (The Daily Mail lawsuit). At this point at least, it does not appear that this threat to our democracy will be checked by the GOP-controlled  legislative branch, which seems ready, and even eager, to put party before country,  ideology before democracy.

Progressives may be tempted to follow suit and even condone the excesses of those whose destructive rage delegitimizes nonviolent protest and plays into the hands of “law-and-order” authoritarians, as in Berkeley in January.  And they may also be tempted to demonize the right as such, including the many religious and political conservatives who have taken a clear stand against the Trumpist insurrection – courageous figures such as David Brooks, David Frum, Russell Moore, Peter Wehner, and George Will.

Progressives should resist that temptation. In the months and years to come, President Trump and his congressional enablers will gradually purge the federal bureaucracy of dissenters and pack the federal courts with like-minded yes-men. At the same time, they will redouble their hypocritical attacks on the “mainstream media” and their shameful suppression of voting rights.  Then, at some point, a crisis will come, or be made to come, and behind it, an authoritarian tide will sweep in.  We progressives will not be strong enough to resist these tides on our own. At that moment of crisis, we will need allies in the center and on the right – allies in government, in the media, in the military, and in the churches who will stand with us and say “no.”

This alliance need not be a purely negative one premised on opposition to Trumpism.  Even after four decades of the culture wars, there are still some basic values that transcend party ideology, a civic creed that most Americans will affirm in their hearts.  That creed has four tenets: liberty, equality, civic inclusion, and the common good. These tenets are inscribed in our founding documents, in a shared commitment to the “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal”; the project of forging “one out of many” (e pluribus unum) and the resolute “pursuit of the general welfare.”

Of course, progressives and conservatives do not agree about the ordering or meaning of these values.  Modern-day conservatives tend to place liberty above all else, while contemporary progressives tend to give the four values equal weight.  Similarly, conservatives usually understand equality more narrowly as “equality before the law,” while progressives view it a little more expansively as “equality of opportunity.”  But these ongoing political disagreements are premised on an underlying agreement about basic political values –  our civic creed. That creed frames our civic conversation.

Let us be clear: Trumpism is a Trojan horse for a new creed, an ethno-nationalist and anti-American one. Its core values are dominance, hierarchy, purity, and prosperity: America must “win.” America must be “first.” America must have “walls.” And above all, it must get “better deals.” Trump is the embodiment of this creed. “I am America”, he proclaims, turning comedy into farce, “and so can you!”  In his vision, the white Christians of the “heartlands” are the “real” America, and everyone else is just here on their sufferance.

This, too, is old.  From Cotton Mather through John C. Calhoun to Strom Thurmond and now Steve Bannon, white Christian nationalists have been assaulting our civic creed since the late seventeenth century.  Again and again, they have styled themselves the defenders of Western civilization against one demonic enemy or another – Native Americans, Irish Catholics, “uppity blacks” and now “radical Islam.” Up to now, their attempts to frighten the citizenry and topple our creed have been repelled.  Never before have they been so close to succeeding.

Republican government is inherently fragile.  The ancient Greeks and Romans knew this. The Renaissance Venetians and Florentines knew this. So did the American founders.  They did their best to design a system of government that would resist the blandishments of would-be tyrants and the vicissitudes of political parties. But they also knew that institutions alone would never be enough.  There are moments when the survival of self-government depends on the “civic virtue” of the people, on their willingness to make sacrifices for the greater good. This is one of those moments, a moment when Americans must be ready to call a temporary truce in the culture wars and join together to defend the vital center.


Phillip Gorski is a Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at Yale University.